The English just love a literary tempest in a teapot. Starting in thespring and sputtering on through the summer, critics for such decent publications as The Observer, The New Statesmen and Granta harrumphed about¨wait for it¨the 'death of the English novel.' Yes, it sounds like a case of dTja vu all over again, but the key argument is worth noting. Andrew Marr in The Observer provoked the bun fight when he claimed that even the best British fiction is mere entertainment, "competing with the telly or PlayStation." Marr said that the authors of history, biography and science books are more brilliant and more 'dangerous' than current novelists; furthermore, non-fiction writers are the ones who bring us urgent news of our times. A reply by novelist Jason Cowley in The New Statesmen, got me thinking about crime fiction and about John Farrow's detective, Emile Cinq-Mars. Cowley said British novels are 'clever but empty,' that few writers can do 'character and narrative.' In fine high falutin' style, Cowley concluded that "fiction in Britain long ago ceased to be an act of moral inquiry."
In that sweeping comment, Cowley sneered at a whole array of fine writers, like P. D. James. If he had put aside his genre snobbery and looked beyond the motherland, Cowley might have noticed that U.S. and Canadian mystery/thriller writers are offering 'urgent news' arising from 'moral inquiry, character and narrative'. James Lee Burke's detective, Dave Robichaud, trolls the American South and finds racism still endemic. James Ellroy sets his noir novels against backdrops like the Vietnam War or probes the machinations behind the Kennedy assassination. In City of Ice and now Ice Lake, Montreal's Trevor Ferguson (under the pseudonym John Farrow) offers a priestly detective engaged in a moral quest, colorful gangsters and story lines arising from contemporary calamities, such as biker warfare in Quebec, the after-shocks of the Oka crisis and the AIDS epidemic.
Sergeant-Detective Emile Cinq-Mars is in his late 50s and something of a celebrity on the Montreal police force. He has a 'beaky' nose and is overly fond of bacon and eggs. He lives on a horse farm with his younger, sexy wife, Sandra. Part Native, part French, Cinq-Mars is engaged in a secular battle against evil. In a memorable scene from City of Ice, Cinq-Mars sits in his car atop Mount Royal lit by a nearby electric cross; Ferguson describes him as "the last, the very last to erode." In Ice Lake, Ferguson plays more elaborately with the priest metaphor. Cinq-Mars' father had yearned to become a priest and failed; Emile was raised knowing the priesthood might be in his own future. Instead, he became a cop who breaks the rules in complicated games against the 'bad' guys:
"As a police officer who carried with him a sense of the world's need for redemption, and not merely justice, there were times.when he would act on his own, preferring to answer to the angels and the saints. His work was every bit as precious, every bit as ordained, every bit as consecrated as a life in the priesthood."
Cinq-Mars is a powerful creation but largely absent from the first third of Ice Lake. The novel opens with Cinq-Mars and his partner, Bill Mathers ice-fishing on Lake of Two Mountains, a couple of hours from Montreal. A body is discovered under the ice in a nearby shack. Much of the ensuing action takes place in this rural community which is surrounded by a Mohawk reserve known for its act of resistance during the Oka crisis, a monastery and two rival pharmaceutical firms. The story loops back in time and the focus shifts to Lucy Gabriel. She is a lab technician at Hillier-Largent Pharmaceuticals but also a Native who was briefly famous for her courage on the barricades during the Oka crisis.
Seductive, beautiful and a deeply moral woman, Lucy rapidly transforms into a kind of Florence Nightingale helping desperate AIDS patients in New York and New Jersey. In a series of economical scenes, Lucy secretly travels in a mobile lab across the border and treats the patients with highly experimental drugs. Hillier-Largent is desperate to hit the financial jackpot by discovering a cure for AIDS. Stirred into this mix are a number of other characters: Andrew Stettler, a mobster who becomes¨of all things¨head of security for Biologika, a rival firm. Werner Honigwachs, the brilliant boss of Biologika, who uses mob money to fund his research, and Camille Choquette, a single mom, who is sleeping with both Werner and a local cop, Charlie Painchaud.
The drama initially unfolds at a modest tempo; some readers will grow impatient with Cinq-Mars' absence and the ultimate meaning of Lucy's forays into New York. Farrow, however, is neatly setting up a serpentine hall of mirrors; when the story comes forward in time with the murder, and Cinq-Mars gets on the case, events start to ricochet and our assumptions fracture.
Farrow cranks up the narrative torque considerably with an attempt on Cinq-Mars' life. In the remainder of the novel we are treated to sudden twists and revelations, and sporadic bouts of sex and violence. The Mohawk Warriors are drawn more directly into the story along with Jacques, a vicious gangster fond of white cadillacs. Like Dennis Lehane's recent Mystic River, the most evil character in Ice Lake is acting out a deadly script that originates in a traumatic childhood ordeal. As a result, several victims turn up with their mouths sewn firmly shut. The climactic shoot-out comes, suitably, in a monastery.
Farrow allows us to eavesdrop on 'mind games,' whereby individual characters try to anticipate behaviours and discern motivation. Cinq-Mars himself eschews the fancy trappings of modern police work like computer analysis and scientific craft. He prefers "to get into the heads of criminals, figure them out, trap them by anticipating their behavioiur." For readers, these speculations can resemble imaginary chess games that are sometimes absorbing and sometimes lacking in crediblility.
A weakness of City of Ice was the relationship between Cinq-Mars and Mathers, his younger, English-Canadian partner. In Ice Lake somewhat archaic words mar the chemistry. Would hard-boiled detectives and cons 'chuckle' or 'chortle?'; Farrow's use of 'jalopy' and 'caterwaul' doesn't exactly lend authenticity to a contemporary tale of gangster warfare. Still, in some ways the banter between Cinq-Mars and Mathers is a vast improvement over City of Ice. There's a wry, buoyant humour here that's often amusing and Cinq-Mars takes himself less seriously. When Cinq-Mars gobbles too much breakfast and suffers with cramps during an interrogation and then stumbles with mispronunciations of Honigwachs' name, we feel the prick of sharp satire. Overall, the set piece interrogation of Honigwachs is a fascinating encounter as the wary, sophisticated adversaries interweave metaphors of space and time with chat about horses and crime. Farrow also reveals a more emotional side of Cinq-Mars here, as he copes with the approaching death of his father.
Less ambitious than City of Ice, Farrow's Ice Lake offers more subtle pleasures than those to be found with 'Playstation or the telly.' Rumour has it that Ferguson, after fulfilling his pricey contract for two thrillers, is eager to work on another literary novel. Books like The Fire Line and The Timekeeper are worlds away from Ice Lake, though all of Ferguson's work wrestles with moral choices in a world where redemption is only a remote possibility. Now that Ferguson has enjoyed the sight of his thrillers on the racks at Costco and Price Club, it's time for his neglected literary work to be recognized by a similarly large audience. ˛
Keith Nickson teaches at Toronto's George Brown College.